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Armour: Who’s to Blame for Failure to Clean Up USA Gymnastics Mess?

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A competitor warming up at the 2016 United States women’s gymnastics Olympic trials. Photo: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

By Nancy Armour |

The turmoil that marked Kerry Perry’s brief tenure at USA Gymnastics was wholly predictable. And familiar to the entire U.S. Olympic movement.

With USA Gymnastics needing a strong and knowledgeable leader to make amends for the Larry Nassar crisis and implement policies to ensure a horror like that will never happen again, the federation instead hired someone who knew nothing about the organization she would be running.

Someone who kept on executives who helped foster – either actively or with their silence – the very culture she was tasked to change. Someone who relied too much on lawyers and not enough on common sense. Someone who bunkered down when she needed to be bold. Someone who preached transparency but practiced secrecy.

Two years after women began coming forward to say Nassar had abused them, there should be tangible signs that USA Gymnastics is moving beyond the sexual abuse scandal. Instead, it has to start anew, its credibility with survivors and the public diminished even further.

As easy as it is to blame USA Gymnastics, its previous board and anyone else who sat by and watched the organization’s continuing failure, this didn’t happen in a vacuum. For the better part of two decades now, the national governing bodies have operated with little to no oversight.

Not from the U.S. Olympic Committee, which likes to keep them at arm’s length until there are medals to be won. Nor from Congress, which seems to have forgotten it authored the Ted Stevens Act under which the national governing bodies (NGBs) operate.

“These organizations, I don’t think, are particularly well practiced being in the spotlight,” said Roger Pielke Jr., a professor at the University of Colorado and director of its Sports Governance Center. “Sure, in sport. But when you talk about Congress … and the national and international glare, I think they’re out of practice.”

The failures of multiple NGBs to adequately protect young athletes from sexual abuse is at the forefront of the current crisis, and also played a role USOC CEO Scott Blackmun’s departure in February. The problems run deeper though.

The USOC and the NGBs have non-profit status, but the snapshots provided by their 990 tax forms show they’re far from charity cases.

Using the 2016 990s, the most recent available, Pielke found in April that there were 184 people at the 47 NGBs with six-figure salaries or higher. Ten were making $500,000 or more, and three were making $1 million or more.

That isn’t necessarily all of them, either, since non-profits are not required to report the salaries of all employees.

“They’re among the highest-paid executives of non-profit organizations across the country,” Pielke said. “Not just in sports.”

That’s not to say money is driving these NGB leaders’ decisions, but it definitely has a way of clouding the issue. Especially when you consider the disparity with how much money is being funneled down to the athletes.

“The special status of the NGBs and USOC might suggest the standard non-profit reporting isn’t sufficient,” Pielke said. “Maybe Congress should require greater level of transparency.”

About that …

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance and Data Security, blistered Perry in a statement Tuesday afternoon. Perry had appeared before Blumenthal’s committee in July along with leaders from the USOC and Michigan State, where Nassar also worked.

“It became abundantly clear that Perry was the wrong person to implement meaningful changes, foster healing and rebuild survivors and the American people’s trust in USAG,” Blumenthal said.

While that might be true, Congress hasn’t exactly been proactive in holding the USOC and the NGBs accountable in recent years. As far as Pielke can tell, until the Nassar scandal, NGB leaders hadn’t been asked to answer to Congress since 2003.

When there are no guardrails, it should come as no surprise when a car runs off the track.

“That’s a whole generation of leaders who have basically had free reign to run their sport without much Congressional oversight,” Pielke said.

The Olympic movement barely resembles what it looked like in 1978, when the Ted Stevens Act was passed. Professional athletes weren’t allowed in the Games then, and the Olympics weren’t generating – or costing – multiple billions of dollars. It stands to reason the Act could use some updating.

That might be the only saving grace in this whole mess. Congress, the USOC, the NGBs – the public outrage is so great that they have no choice now but to fix the flaws in the system.

Congress could start by demanding more transparency, including regular appearances by USOC and NGB leaders on Capitol Hill or data from SafeSport. The USOC, meanwhile, could require stricter accountability measures. Public progress reports on transparency initiatives, for example, or yearly audits of SafeSport compliance.

“Just simple accountability measures that we have in place in other walks of life,” Pielke said. “Which ensures we don’t need scandal for these issues to become salient.”

Without substantive changes, a leadership overhaul at USA Gymnastics will have little more impact than rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, and it will be only a matter of time before a new scandal breaks.

This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

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